Foo Fighters wanted to rule rock. 25 years later, they’re still roaring.
By Jeremy Gordon
Dave Grohl has done so much throughout his career — drummed for Nirvana, arguably the biggest band of its generation; led Foo Fighters, one of the most successful acts of the past three decades; sold out Wembley Stadium, twice; played on the White House lawn; interviewed the sitting president of the United States; broke his leg during a show and finished the show with the broken leg; entered the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, with another induction likely on the way; recorded with both living Beatles; appeared on “The Muppets,” also twice — that when you ask him what’s left, he takes a moment.
“That’s one of those things that I think of every morning when I wake up,” Grohl, 52, said during a recent interview, his long, brown hair streaked with gray and tucked behind his ears. “What have we not done? What could we do today?”
Without missing a beat, he recalled a moment years ago when he was “really hot” to play the Super Bowl. A pure thought experiment for most artists, but not him: “Well, let’s call the Super Bowl” was the next step, he recounted with a smile.
The talks, though there were a few of them, petered out. But could you blame him for thinking it could happen — that one could simply wish to play the Super Bowl, and a couple of phone calls later, play for 100 million viewers? Over the past 25 years, Foo Fighters have steadily grown from a one-man project into a bona fide rock institution. “It’s almost like we’re farmers, and the field just keeps growing,” Grohl said of the band’s stacking accomplishments. “Then we harvest it, and then it grows some more, and then we harvest it and it grows some more.”
Though their music has spanned the spectrum of what was once considered “alternative,” the Foos have become comfortably associated with a style of adrenalizing, heavy-footed hard rock, doled out in concerts that commonly stretch past the two-hour mark. While that sound has enabled the band to build a lucrative business — their worldwide tour behind the 2017 album “Concrete and Gold” grossed $114 million, per the industry trade Pollstar — rock hasn’t led the record business in more than a decade. The band hasn’t charted a Top 40 single since 2007.
Yet Foo Fighters occupy a rare space as a band with mainstream appeal, led by an undeniably famous star who does not yet feel like an elder statesman. Blessed with relentless energy and a robust contacts list, they’re called upon whenever rock music with joy and gravitas is required, whether it’s David Letterman’s final late-night show, an all-star Prince tribute at the Grammys, a benefit for musicians financially affected by coronavirus, the Kennedy Center Honors or a Democratic presidential fundraiser. No matter where Foo Fighters show up, they always make sense.
This is partly a result of consistency — by sticking around, without courting controversy, and releasing numerous hit songs with staying power, Foo Fighters have become recognizable to multiple generations. Nirvana remains an important band for successive iterations of young people, and Grohl will always be a member. But whereas the rock stars of yesteryear loomed as unapproachable icons, Grohl feels like a relatable Everyman, someone you could actually have a beer with. And as the years have worn on, and more of his peers have died or receded from the spotlight, he has kept going, a survivor of his old band, his era, and trend after trend after trend. None of which seems to have lessened his indefatigable positivity, all of which he channels into summoning that rock ’n’ roll communal catharsis, whenever required.
Their new album, “Medicine at Midnight,” out Friday, is a subtle but distinct pivot. Without shedding their traditional distorted guitars and expansive howling, the Foos have consciously incorporated dance and funk rhythms into their new songs, influenced by artists like David Bowie and the Rolling Stones who did the same.
The irony of dropping their dance record when live music remains indefinitely postponed wasn’t lost on anyone, including Grohl, who remains the band’s driving creative force. He wasn’t shy about his ambition when we talked, but that friendly demeanor belies the monomaniacal focus required to be so productive. Hard work is not a very stereotypically rocking trait, and yet the Foos have averaged a new album every three years since the beginning, and rarely go dormant for more than a few months at a time. “He doesn’t flutter with his ideas,” said keyboardist Rami Jaffee, who started playing with the band in 2005 and joined as a full-time member in 2017. “It’s just full-speed ahead.”
Drummer Taylor Hawkins was more direct. “I want to be the biggest band in the world,” he said. “There’s no (expletive) question, and so does Dave. I think he always did.”
Without a tour to embark on, the Foos spun up a promotional blitz across the internet. Grohl, along with “Medicine at Midnight” producer Greg Kurstin, put out a series of Hannukah-themed covers of Jewish musicians like Drake and the Beastie Boys; he engaged in a viral drum battle with 10-year-old British musician Nandi Bushell; he started an Instagram account where he tells long, funny stories from his life; the band has dipped into livestreamed performances; they got together in the same room for “Times Like Those,” where they provided running commentary for a photographic slideshow culled from the band’s 25 years together. There are also plans to release a documentary about touring in vans, and one member let slip something about a separate movie project.
GROHL’S LONG JOURNEY through the music industry began in the mid-’80s, when he dropped out of high school to drum for the Washington, D.C., hard-core band Scream. After it disbanded, he was invited to audition for the open drummer slot in Nirvana, then an up-and-coming Seattle-based band. Not long after, Nirvana recorded and released “Nevermind,” an industry-topping smash that tilted the axis of mainstream taste toward angsty rock.
Butch Vig, who produced the 1991 “Nevermind,” recalled Kurt Cobain hyping up Grohl as “the world’s greatest drummer,” and being blown away by the force of his playing in the studio.
“But the thing that struck me was he had this unbelievable energy to him — he brought so much life and power to the band, but also some levity,” Vig said. “As the band evolved, and became this massive success, I could see a lot of the weight of the world being internalized in Kurt, and Dave continued to bring a sense of humor and joy to what Nirvana was doing.”
After Cobain’s 1994 suicide, Grohl was offered several other drumming jobs, including a full-time role with Tom Petty, but decided to pursue his own solo project: Foo Fighters, its name cribbed from a World War II phrase for UFOs. He ended up playing every instrument on what would become the group’s 1995 debut album and recruited ex-Nirvana guitarist Pat Smear, as well as bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith of the proto-emo group Sunny Day Real Estate to form a touring band.
From the beginning, the specter of Nirvana hung over Grohl’s new endeavor. Fans at early Foo shows would clamor to hear “Marigold,” a Grohl-sung Nirvana B-side, and speculate freely about any potential reference to Cobain’s death in his lyrics. But Grohl found a way to take it in stride, which was no easy thing. “We carried that on our backs from the first rehearsal,” he said. “The last thing you want in any situation is, upon first meeting someone, have them ask you a question about the most painful time in your entire life.”
Smear said Nirvana and Cobain are “a part of the conversation. But in the beginning, it was the conversation — it was all anyone asked about.” Grohl also made some fundamentally different business decisions based on that experience: All of the band’s records are released through Roswell, an RCA subsidiary, allowing the members to retain the rights to their music and share songwriting credit. (Most of Nirvana’s songs were credited to Cobain alone.)
Over the next few years, the Foos toured and recorded furiously, releasing several singles that became staples of rock radio: “Everlong,” “My Hero,” “Learn to Fly.” Despite their success, there was little stability: Goldsmith quit and was replaced by Hawkins; Smear left over touring pressures (he returned in 2005); Mendel almost quit, too. “A long time went by where each album could have been our last,” Grohl said. They nearly split while recording the 2002 album “One by One,” during which they scrapped the entire record amid an escalation in interpersonal tension.
“That was the first time we’d really hit any kind of roadblock,” Mendel said. When the dust cleared following many heart-to-heart conversations, “One by One” was successfully rerecorded to commercial acclaim, and the band finally emerged as a stable unit.
Part of that involved a further consolidation of Grohl’s role as band leader; the flip side of being the friendliest man in music are the moments when one simply must be the boss.
“There’s a deliberate effort to hold on to some innocence that conflicts with him running a band,” Mendel said. “Sometimes, he would just sweep stuff under the rug that was uncomfortable to talk about.” For example, Goldsmith’s exit from the band was an awkwardly drawn-out process, beginning when his drum parts on the 1997 album “The Colour and the Shape” were covertly rerecorded by Grohl.
“I think he built up the confidence to say, ‘If this needs to get done, it’s OK that I have to put on this bastard hat for a minute,’ ” Mendel continued. “‘I can do that and still be me, and the band can still be the band that it is.’”
Though Grohl stressed he sees the band as the sum of its parts, there’s no question who’s the ultimate decision-maker. “If everybody had equal say, we’d probably argue about stuff a lot more,” said guitarist Chris Shiflett, who joined in 1999. But Grohl “always handles it well, and if you look at the big picture, things have been really good all along the way. A certain level of success keeps everybody happy.”
Usually, Grohl asks the band to expand whatever demos and ideas he brings to the studio, but for “Medicine at Midnight” his concepts were more fully formed. “I started thinking about tempos and grooves and rhythms and keeping the big choruses that we’ve always had, but framing them in a way that it’s not 200 beats per minute and screaming bloody murder,” Grohl said.
The languid vibe of “Shame Shame” is a new register; the elastic rhythm of “Cloudspotter” allows more space for those distorted guitars to breathe. Grohl cited Abba multiple times when talking about its sonic touch points, and drummer Omar Hakim — who played on Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” — appears on several tracks. “The idea of one of our songs coming on at a (expletive) dance party just seemed totally unreasonable, but I thought ‘Why not?’ ” Grohl said.
In 2012, Grohl went the wrong kind of viral for giving a speech at the Grammys where he criticized “computer” music. But for this record, he embraced drum loops — a new frontier for the band, and something their actual drummer took some time getting used to. “Dave has a strong hold on every single thing that happens on our record — every bass note, every guitar note, every vocal, every everything,” Hawkins said. “Sometimes he knows what he wants, you know? But he also likes the idea of sparking off each other, which happens still.”
One example is “Waiting on a War,” which the band built from the ground up, and was based on a conversation Grohl had with one of his daughters. “I think she had been watching the news and had heard something about some international conflict, whether it was North Korea or Russia,” he said. “It reminded me of being a child growing up outside of Washington, D.C. — I was always in fear, especially in the ’80s. I just hated seeing my own child feel the same way I did when I was her age, being robbed of the innocence of youth.” The result is one of the record’s highlights, as well as Hawkins’ personal favorite.
After our first conversation, the band notched another accomplishment: inauguration performer. The connection to President Joe Biden’s campaign began in the fall, when Grohl, his mother, Virginia, and Jill Biden sat down for a Zoom call about education. (Virginia was a public-school teacher for 35 years.) In a convergence of circumstance and opportunity that worked out just right, as things tend to do for the band, the Foos also played “Saturday Night Live” on the night Biden was declared the election’s winner — a performance that took place with four days’ notice.
For the inauguration event, there was really no question about what they’d play: the hopeful “Times Like These,” a track released nearly 20 years ago that has endured as an unyielding, optimistic anthem, where Grohl’s voice ascends from tender to thundering as he sounds for a fresh start. No matter what year the song is performed, “Times Like These” always looks toward the future, imbued with a spirit of renewal much like Grohl himself. Across social media, the response was overwhelmingly positive; more than that, the band was greeted like old friends. Once again, Foo Fighters made sense.
Above all, Grohl maintains a forceful belief in the unifying power of music — in creating a space where people can come together and scream to feel something. As he explained it, everything the band has done, and continues to do, stems from this very clear purpose.
“I just want to stay alive and play music, especially after Nirvana,” he said. “When Kurt died, I truly woke up the next day and felt so lucky to be alive, and so heartbroken that someone can just disappear. I decided to take advantage of that, for the rest of my life.”
Throughout our conversations he’d been self-aware about what people expect from Foo Fighters, but did not take that responsibility lightly. “To me, this band has always represented this continuation of life,” he added. “We’ve been accused of being the least dangerous band in the world, and I think that that’s justified in some ways, because I know what it’s like to be in that other band, and I know what that can lead to. That’s not why I play music. It’s not why I started playing music, and it’s not why I play music still.” After all, he’d already played in the biggest band in the world. Why not do it again?